Demaine's office is on the sixth Floor of MIT's Building 32, the Frank Gehry–designed home of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. The day I arrive, Demaine is seated at his desk in a T-shirt and black jeans. We haven't chatted for 15 minutes when a somewhat shorter, older version of him walks in and joins the conversation. Erik's father, Marty, wears the same uniform: a T-shirt and black jeans. Like his son, he sports a ponytail, a pair of oval-framed glasses, and a modest growth of facial hair.
Whether intended or not, their matching appearance speaks to a lifetime spent in close collaboration. After Marty and his wife split up, he took Erik, then just seven, on a four-year road trip from their home in Halifax, Nova Scotia, across North America, homeschooling him along the way. When Erik entered college (administrators at Dalhousie University bent the rules in order to accept a 12-year-old), his father attended classes right beside him. Then Marty followed his son to the University of Waterloo in Ontario, where Erik completed his doctorate, and then on to MIT.
Son and father work together daily. When not on campus, they often travel as a team to scientific meetings, giving joint lectures and demonstrations. (In one, Marty posed as an angry heckler, only to remove his wig and reveal the prank midway through.) They've performed side-by-side in improv shows, and they still live together too. Of all the work that Erik does, the projects with his father tend to be the most contagious, in the sense that they feed back into his other interests. Erik and Marty often say they're working on "recreational algorithms," which is, Erik says, "sort of a catchall for anything that we do for fun."
In recent years, Erik and Marty have written papers on the Rubik's Cube, brainteasers involving dice, and tricky schemes for hanging picture frames. Even Erik's more serious work, such as modeling the dynamics of protein folding or developing algorithms to enhance computer efficiency, follows from the same impulse: "It's got to be cool," he says. "Ultimately, everything I do I kind of view as recreational, in that I do it because I enjoy it."
The bookshelves in his office are filled with toys and tchotchkes and paper foldings that he's made with Marty. "I feel like a connoisseur of games," he says sitting beside a 52-inch TV cabled to a Nintendo Wii. "I try to play almost every game for at least a little while, just to get a sense for the different genres." Lately, some of the projects he and Marty are undertaking seem less like games and more like studies of the absurd. For one, they've been leaving breadcrumbs in a circle in the park to see how birds respond. For another, they will study the geometry of pasta shapes. They also plan to lock a pigeon in a cage of bread so it can peck its way to freedom. The projects may seem pointless now, but then it's hard to say where play might lead.
The coincidence of the brilliant and the playful mind has a long history in science. Among its most famous exemplars was the 19th-century Scottish physicist and child prodigy James Clerk Maxwell. At 14 years old, Maxwell wrote his first scientific paper, on a method he'd devised for tracing curves using pins and thread. In his early twenties, as a fellow at Trinity College, he became interested in spinning tops. He attached colored paper to the tops of the toys and spun them around like whirling pie charts. He would record how the colors appeared to merge in motion. Maxwell found that red and green and blue could mix to make any color, a discovery that eventually led him to invent the color photograph.
"The only way you can do breakthrough research is constantly to play with phenomena," says Robert Root-Bernstein, a physiologist and winner of his own MacArthur grant. Root-Bernstein and his wife, Michele, a historian and adjunct professor at Michigan State University, have studied creativity and how scientific genius manifests. (They wrote a book on the creative process called Sparks of Genius.) "If you don't have that playfulness," Root-Bernstein says, "you're never going to have the breadth of experiences necessary to run into something, in a sense, by accident."
Maxwell's case is just one example of how play has fostered scientific discovery. Alexander Fleming's identification of penicillin may have been inspired by his passion for painting agar plates with brightly colored microbes. (The fungus Penicillium happens to be an intense blue-green.) The quantum theoretician Richard Feynman began his work on the precession of electron orbits after watching a tossed plate wobble through the air in the Cornell cafeteria. "That's what play does for you," Root-Bernstein says. "You learn all the rules of the game, and then you know when something unexpected or interesting has occurred."
Perhaps in this genius youth being a nerd, the popular kids told him to go and get bent.
Of course this genius being wise said YES to himself and decided to make a productive future of bent things, lol.
I think this gentleman is AWESOME!
I first saw this guy in a documentary about origami called Between the Folds (available on Netflix). It's a good documentary, and this man is a great influence on the world. Kudos.
He should be in charge of educating the youth, imagine how he could change the world by starting with blank slates.
I hate that condescending looking smirk.
I so much appreciate and enjoy his smirk.
KUDOS TO HIM!
Frosttty, That's not a condescending smirk. Interesting that you think that but that's another matter entirely. He just doesn't like to have his photo taken.
So, being that it's Monday he gets to play...
Ok; we like the magnetic torus. We like ring magnets even though we can't figure out how to make a perfect one. What if we don't need a perfect one? In energy, that ring magnet gives us a potential core for fusion. So then why not mechanically build a core the same way a sun does it's fusion?
Suspend a small common neo ring magnet above a descending spiral configuration magnet array. Wee! It spins! Locality established, engine on. Bear with me. While that ring may not be perfectly polarized, it will be if it works. Put a glass of water in there, so that the ring magnet is suspended in water. Freeze. Remove ice from glass, trim off the excess incredibly dangerous material you've created. Crush between two plasma pinches. The magnet will receive it's charge at pretty much .9 C or better? All the oxygen atoms in the water molecules were already aligned in their spiral towards the core, where they'll drag those two side by side hydrogen atoms in behind them, correct? And that's where the electron pairing starts, as it breaks loose that oxygen. It's already partially photonically aligned as well, and there are plenty enough photons in the ice next to that magnet. When the crush comes it breaks everything around that core potential and releases heat, but not before that neo magnet. When it breaks it should implode. One instant in time and space. Breaking the strong force, electrons hit, re-exited photons hit, and creating the potential to fuse those two first H atoms?
What I like about this one is that it breaks down all forces in sequence, and states dictate the energetic reaction from the lowest back up. It uses nothing extra. It requires nothing other than the natural process as it exists in nature. I've considered that we may have to jam some photon streams in there. I've considered that we might have to remove the magnet from the ice because it is an impure quantity in our mix, which is fine. Doesn't change anything, because once the ice has formed, the magnet has done it's job already. Remove the ice, and when those two plasma pinches become a circuit, it's as if they are a stamped magnetic circuit in the physical world. Particle positioning and vectoring are extant, but not in a system that has to bow to Coulomb because we create a system that depends on it working, just in reverse.
Nah, leave the magnet, passively connect negative across ice, and start pulling juice at the time the magnet shatters. Means a positive pair of plasma pinches. Ya. That's the ticket.